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Friday, September 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
Please sir, no more: "Oliver" with junkies and rent boys does disservice to Dickens

By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times

Nick Stahl, left, is the Artful Dodger character, renamed Dodge, and Joshua Close is the Oliver Twist figure in "Twist," inspired by Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and set in Toronto.
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If you removed all the humor and spontaneity from Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho," the result might look a lot like 24-year-old writer-director Jacob Tierney's "Twist," one of the glummest recent attempts to drag a classic story into the 21st century.

Just as Van Sant based his tale of contemporary male hookers on Shakespeare's "Henry V," Tierney draws inspiration from Dickens' "Oliver Twist." The Victorian London pickpockets of the original story have become Toronto rent boys, who are kept in line by a pimp named Fagin (Gary Farmer) and a mysterious brute who corresponds to Dickens' Bill Sykes.

Michèle-Barbara Pelletier plays Sykes' doomed main squeeze, Nancy, who provides the lost boys with coffee and drugs. Joshua Close is the Oliver Twist figure: a blond, bland runaway from a foster family. No longer the center of the story, Oliver has been replaced by the Artful Dodger character, renamed Dodge (Nick Stahl), whose heroin addiction makes him a poor mentor for Oliver.

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"Twist," with Nick Stahl, Gary Farmer, Joshua Close, Stephen McHattie. Written and directed by Jacob Tierney. 97 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, drug use, language, violence. Varsity.

Nevertheless, Stahl dominates the movie with his mournful presence. He helps to set the tone and establish the direction the rest of the cast will take. Partly this is because Close, Farmer and Pelletier have so little to work with. The script, which has little to add to Dickens' social-reform agenda (and much to subtract from his detailed characterizations), does the actors no favors.

But mostly it's because Stahl, who played the murdered son in "In the Bedroom" and recently carried HBO's spotty miniseries "Carnivale," could read a phone book and turn an area code into an aria. His harrowing portrayal of a junkie on the skids almost makes you buy Tierney's revisionist/minimalist rewrite, which goes out of its way to subvert Dickens' contrived happy ending and substitute something that's almost unimaginably sordid. It's also less credible than anything in Dickens' version.

Stahl really needs to start picking his projects more carefully. Like "Carnivale," which was more setup than payoff, "Twist" sounds so much more interesting than it turns out to be. There's only so much a charismatic actor can do with a director who seems determined to undermine everything that made the original material rich and memorable.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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